The short answer is that dogs very likely possess mirror neurons, but we have no concrete proof just yet. Neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti of the University of Parma in Italy and his colleagues discovered mirror neurons by accident during the 1990s, when they were studying motor neurons in rhesus monkeys. Rizzolatti and his co-workers found that certain neurons in the frontal and parietal cortex became active both when a monkey watched another monkey take food and when the monkey grabbed the food itself. They adopted the term “mirror neuron” to reflect the fact that these neurons fire in patterns that mimic others' actions.

Using functional brain imaging, neuroscientists have located brain areas with similar mirror function in humans. They believe that these neural structures may help us understand the intentions of another, to imitate and empathize with others, and perhaps even to process language. Additional evidence suggests that mirror neurons are not exclusive to primates or even mammals. Researchers have found dedicated mirror neurons in the brain of songbirds that fire both when the animal sings a particular tune and when it hears another songbird crooning a similar melody.

The presence of mirror neurons in other animals suggests that they may have an ancient evolutionary origin and play an important role in communication. So it seems entirely reasonable to hypothesize that dogs have mirror neurons, too. Dogs appear to imitate other dogs. And mirror neurons in dogs may support communication with humans; we will have to study dogs' brains more closely to find out.

Question submitted by Betty Sue, Easton, Me.